Undergraduate study - 2021 entry

Degree Programme Specification 2020/2021

MEarthSci in Geology and Physical Geography

To give you an idea of what to expect from this programme, we publish the latest available information. This information is created when new programmes are established and is only updated periodically as programmes are formally reviewed. It is therefore only accurate on the date of last revision.
Awarding institution: The University of Edinburgh
Teaching institution: School of GeoSciences
Programme accredited by:
Final award: MEarthSci
Programme title: MEarthSci in Geology and Physical Geography
UCAS code: FF6V
Relevant QAA subject benchmarking group(s):
Postholder with overall responsibility for QA:

Dr Thor Thordarsen, Academic

Sarah McAllister, Administration

Date of production/revision: June 2012

External summary

The Geology and Physical Geography Honours Degree integrates the long-term perspective of Earth’s evolution with the shorter-term understanding of Earth Surface Processes, traditionally taught through Physical Geography. The outcome is a degree that endeavours to understand the long and short-term controlling forces on global landscapes and implications for determining the role of modern anthropogenic and climatic pressures on the planet. This knowledge provides the platform for understanding natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding and landslides as well as natural resources such as hydrocarbons, water and minerals.

The Edinburgh degree maximises on the unique range of expertise in the School of GeoSciences to give students the opportunity to be taught by, and to work alongside leading international researchers in diverse fields such as climate change, oceanography, volcanology, glaciology, geodynamics and geomorphology. The flexibility of option choices throughout the degree permits students to explore around the subject, and to tailor their degree to their interests.

The learning outcomes of the degree include a fundamental understanding of the deep-earth processes responsible for the present distribution of the continents and oceans, and an awareness of connectivity in the Earth system (land, ocean, atmosphere, biosphere) that result in the present-day topography of the planet. Knowledge of the techniques required to analyse these systems will be developed through practical and theoretical means. The ability to record and analyse original observations will be developed through laboratory and field-based learning. The societal relevance of this learning will be achieved through increasing awareness, interactions with industrial partners and discussions around policy applications. The Master’s degree builds onto the Bachelor’s degree by providing an additional year to focus on the learning skills necessary to carry out an individual research dissertation.

Educational aims of programme

Edinburgh University provides an established degree programme in Geology and Physical Geography that is designed to meet society's need for geoscience graduates who can apply their skills to global change issues and to land and site management problems.

Graduates in Geology and Physical Geography are given a strong geology background, but also gain experience and knowledge in physical geography and man’s impact on the physical environment. Honours level projects may be of a geological, physical geography or hybrid nature, supervised by staff in either the Institute of Earth Science or the Institute of Geography. Students also select advanced level options from both geology and physical geography, enabling them to develop an overview of the linkages between geological processes and their surface manifestations on Earth.

Topics which are available as options include Glacial Geomorphology, Landscape dynamics, Geographic Information Science (GIS), Global Environmental Change, Palaeontology and several more. These illustrate a major strength of this degree programme: its diversity and ability to extend across the usual boundaries between geology and the physical processes acting on the Earth’s surface today.

Graduates from the Geology and Physical Geography degree programme are choosing a mixture of careers, from the academic, through direct employment in industry and local authorities, to diverse careers in multinational companies.

The programme aims to provide excellent preparation for a career in:

  • Professional practice in industrial Earth or Environmental Sciences;

  • Research in Earth Sciences and specialist areas of other physical and natural sciences; and

  • Practice in industries, commerce, public service and education, particularly those needing to be informed by the methodology of a broad range of physical and natural science.

Programme outcomes: Knowledge and understanding

  • A sound knowledge base in the natural sciences and an ability to understand, integrate and extend it so that Earth surface processes are understood in their broadest context;
  • Profound knowledge and understanding applied to selected Earth Science research frontiers;
  • Knowledge of the structure and composition of the solid Earth and of Earth dynamics; understanding of how vertical and horizontal rock motions lead to the formation of continents and oceans and determine global scale topography.
  • Knowledge of how topography interacts with the atmosphere in governing fluvial, hillslope and glacial processes.
  • Knowledge of the fundamentals of chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics to the levels needed for a comprehensive understanding of these Earth processes (varying these levels according to choices of more generalist or more specialist curriculum routes);
  • Knowledge of the nomenclature and classification of rocks, minerals, fossils and geological structures;
  • Understanding of the processes responsible for defining modern continental landscapes.

Programme outcomes: Graduate attributes - Skills and abilities in research and enquiry

By engaging with and completing the degree in Geology and Physical Geography, graduates will be able to:

  • Identify rocks, minerals, fossils and geological structures using laboratory and field techniques;
  • Quantitatively analyse remote data such as digital topography and geology;
  • Map the geology and geomorphology of a region in the field;
  • Observe and record a range of original geological and geographical data;
  • Devise, plan and carry out an independent hypothesis-testing research project;
  • Synthesise and interpret information in terms of hypotheses;
  • Work in teams to collect data, synthesise information and communicate the results.

Programme outcomes: Graduate attributes - Skills and abilities in personal and intellectual autonomy


By engaging with and completing the degree in Geology and Physical Geography, graduates will be able to see Geology & Physical Geography as vital components of:

  • our culture, whereby science develops due to informed curiosity about the Earth and mankind’s environment;

  • promoting human development through the search for energy sources, raw materials, water supplies, the sustainable development of these and its impact on society;

  • our understanding of the dynamism of the planet and of the associated natural hazards on different parts of the Earth system.

By providing

  • a programme that is accessible to those qualified at intake in a broad and diverse range of science subjects and which maintains a flexibility allowing students to choose a more generalist or more specialist curriculum appropriate to their interests;

  • personal interaction with high level scientific expertise and advanced equipment;

  • an environment committed to scientific advance.

Programme outcomes: Graduate attributes - Skills and abilities in communication

By engaging with and completing the degree in Geology and Physical Geography, graduates will develop:

  • Skills necessary to obtain data, analyse data, synthesise information, evaluate results and formulate a written report;
  • Oral communication skills with ability to offer opinion based on assessment of scientific data;
  • Skills necessary to debate issues based on factual knowledge.

Programme outcomes: Graduate attributes - Skills and abilities in personal effectiveness

By engaging with and completing the degree in Geology and Physical Geography, graduates will be able to:

  • Objectively analyse and interpret a given dataset;

  • Distinguish data from interpretation, and thus present objective scientific results;

  • Use IT to solve problems and present results;

  • Use appropriate resources (library, internet) for information/data retrieval;

  • Develop interpersonal skills involving interaction with others and ability to work in teams;

  • Ability to work independently;

  • Develop time management and planning skills through research project work and ability to work to set deadlines.

Programme outcomes: Technical/practical skills

By engaging with and completing the degree in Geology and Physical Geography, graduates will be able to:


  • Identify a range of rocks, fossils and minerals;

  • Interpret geological and geomorphological information;

  • Use surface information to infer structures at depth;

  • Use geographical information systems and digital elevation models;

  • Use appropriate resources (library, internet) for information/data retrieval;

  • Communicate their science via reports and oral presentations.


Fieldwork skills

By engaging with and completing the degree in Geology and Physical Geography, graduates will be able to:

  • Identify rocks, minerals, fossils and geological structures in the field and understand their significance;

  • Observe and record original field data;

  • Undertake field mapping and produce field notes to reinforce observations and support interpretations;
  • Use surface geological and geomorphological information to infer structures at depth.

Programme structure and features

Direct entry into 2nd year is possible for suitably-qualified applicants.

Geology and Physical Geography is a five-year degree programme leading to the awarding of a MEarthSci. Assessment is by a combination of project work, coursework and examination.

Year 1: Compulsory courses totalling 60 credits: Earth Dynamics; Earth Surface Systems; Introduction to the Geological Record. Further courses totalling 60 credits from courses in Level 8 schedules A to Q, T and W, including where appropriate 20 or 40 credits in Earth Modelling and Prediction 1 and/or 2.

Year 2: Compulsory courses totalling 80 credits in Earth Materials; Environmental Sensitivity and Change; Geomorphology; Global Tectonics and Sedimentology. Course options of exactly 40 credits from courses in Level 8 schedules A to Q, T and W **Direct entry students have separate course requirements.

Year 3: Compulsory courses totalling 80 credits: Field Skills for Earth Surface Scientists; Geology and Landscapes; Global Tectonics; Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology; Quantitative Methods in Geography; Sedimentology; Spain Field Course – Mountain Building and Destruction; Structural Geology. Course options include EITHER 40 credits from Geography Level 10 courses (collection group A) OR 20 credits from Geography Level 10 courses PLUS 20 credits from the following courses: Applied Hydrogeology; Aquatic Systems; Chemical Geology; Dynamic Stratigraphy; Hydrocarbons; Hydrogeology 1; Igneous Petrogenesis; Introduction to Physical Volcanology; Mathematical Methods for Geophysicists; Ore Mineralogy, Palaeontology; Petrology and Geochemistry; Quaternary Environmental Change.

Year 4: Compulsory courses totalling 80 credits: Dissertation in Geology and Physical Geography; Cyprus Excursion and Synoptic Practical for Geologists and Physical Geographers; Evolution of the Modern Earth. Course options to include 20 credits from Geography Level 10 courses AND 20 credits from Earth Science Level 10 courses.

Year 5: Compulsory courses totalling 100 credits: Geoscience Research Project; Frontiers in Earth Science; MEarthSci Field Training; Project Design and Literature Analysis; Research Methods and Transferable Skills. Course options to include 20 credits from Level 11 courses in Schedule N.

Teaching and learning methods and strategies

Teaching and Learning strategies employed at the University of Edinburgh are tailored to meet the aims of the programme. This includes a taught component delivered through lectures, practicals, tutorials, interactive workshops, and field trips and also student focussed learning activities for independent learning, critical thinking, data handling and synthesis as well as team building. In year 5 independent research is a principal component with training in research methods, project design and transferrable skills.

Specific activities vary depending on course content and the student is supported throughout with opportunities for discussion and feedback on performance.

Assessment methods and strategies

Course assessment is variable depending on the nature of the course, but generally includes an end of semester exam taking during the University exam diet. Courses are assessed by a diverse range of methods and may be considered as part of the class requirement or contribute to the formal credit for the course.

Assessments at pre-Honours levels (Year 1 & 2) include:

  • Abstract writing

  • Essay writing

  • Written examinations

  • Practical class work

  • Field notebooks

  • Laboratory records

  • Interactive IT assignments

In Honours years (Year 3 & 4) assessments include:

  • Essay writing

  • Written examinations

  • Practical class work

  • Field notebooks

  • Seminar presentations

  • Poster presentations

  • Field based projects

  • Short reports

  • Dissertation

  • Group work

In year 5 assessments include:

  • Independent research project

  • Seminar presentations

  • Poster presentations

  • Field based projects

Comments are provided on all assessed work. Instructions on how to complete assessments are provided in the course handbooks or verbally. Reports, essays and written examinations are normally marked and annotated. Each semester student exam papers are made available to the students and the relevant staff are present for discussion to answer questions on the script. Group and individual-based work (posters, seminars, presentations) are assessed both for their content and the quality of the audio-visual skills displayed. Written feedback is provided. Practical field-based projects are also assessed for their scientific content and quality of presentation of the information. These are also annotated and available for discussion.


Career opportunities

Graduates of the Geology and Physical Geography program are employed across sectors from industry to finance and government. A recent survey indicated employment as geologists in the UK and Australia; in the finance and insurance sectors (London and Edinburgh); management consultancy and government (Edinburgh) and finally a proportion of graduates choose to pursue research and academic careers generally and go on to MSc and PhD programs around the world. 

Other items

Teaching in the School of Geosciences is provided by leading national and international geoscientists across a diverse range of research fields. The combination of lectures, tutorials, laboratory and field-based learning is varied year-on-year in line with the progressive structure of the degree program. Excellent laboratory facilities are available with continued investment in teaching equipment including student microscopes. Access to unique research equipment is available during project work for which students have at least one nominated advisor.

All students receive advice and support throughout their time in Edinburgh through their Personal Tutor and Student Support Co-ordinator.